Category Archives: Outdoor Venue

Cymbeline – FREE in NYC

For its 23rd season, New York Classical Theatre has chosen Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  This inventive, lively company is the perfect troupe to take on a work that even Will’s Mum likely thought a headache.  Equal parts comedy, tragedy, romance, and fairytale, the work has a cast of nearly 40 and spans multiple locations.  With a wink and a smile, NY Classical’s jovial band of seven actors skillfully tackles the Everest-high pile of coincidences and present an evening of pure enjoyment. 

The group’s signature style includes traditional staging from the 19th century and the use of New York City parks as a natural backdrop.  In years past, viewers would physically move with the actors as the scene changed.  This year, the city has requested that a single area be used in each location, but the action is staged so that the audience remains the focus of attention. Costumes are minimal with a simple hat or cloak often distinguishing between multiple characters.  (Thanks to designer Sabrinna Fabi, Queen looks as if she shaved the neighbor’s cat to trim her dress, which befits her character.)  Lighting is provided by stagehands holding common flashlights; all the better to focus on engagement and storytelling.

I will not recount the sprawling tale of Cymbeline, which isn’t even about that king so much as his feisty daughter, Imogen.  A read through the dramaturgical notes provided on the website and via email is highly recommended for your enhanced enjoyment of the production.   Even if you do not heed this advice, the cast will give you a helping hand in their concise introduction to the evening, which also sets proper expectations and tone.

Artistic Director/Director Stephen Burdman has wonderfully edited the dialogue and uses each space to full advantage.  Fight scenes are amusingly choreographed by Sean Michael Chin and punctuated with Batman-like sound effects.  Oft-tangled pun-filled lines are delivered with clarity and wit.  Moments that could have been groan-inducing are transformed into delightful farce, as if we and the actors are together chuckling behind Shakespeare’s back.  Evan Moore-Coll is a standout in his four roles including the juicy part of Cloten the clod.  Also pivotal to success is Terrell Wheeler, who undergoes several hot changes between a kindly servant (Pisanio) and a powerful warrior (Caius Lucius).  He makes an imposing contrast to the slight Nick Salamone as the easily manipulated Cymbeline.  Holding the heart of the story as Imogen is an elegant and fiery Aziza Gharib, who also appears as Jupiter in one of the plot’s more outrageous moments.  Brandon Burk, Christian Ryan, and Jenny Strassburg complete the strong company.

Attendance on the Circle Lawn in Carl Schurz (enter at 87th and East End Avenue) is limited to 200 people.  Reservations are recommended in large part so you will receive helpful information including notice of a rain cancelation.  If you do not regularly attend a yoga class, I recommend bringing a short beach chair.  (Taller chairs are permitted, but you will be seated to the side.)  The logistics are described well on the company’s website.  

Above all, this entrance into N Y Classical’s line-up reminds us that sometimes Shakespeare can be FUN!  The strangled twists of Cymbeline are in support of an all-is-well ending that is sorely needed at this time.  Performances continue in Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan through Sunday, July 3, and then move to Brooklyn Commons Park at MetroTech from July 5 through 10.  Tickets are FREE to encourage every theater goer with a pulse to come out and enjoy the show.  Donations to support the professional actors are highly encouraged.  Visit https://nyclassical.org/cymbeline for further information.

Shakespeare in the Park: Merry Wives

The Merry Wives of Windsor — Shakespeare’s only play that centers around everyday working folk — is a wonderful selection for the Public Theater’s 2021 offering.  This production arrives after a difficult stretch which renewed awareness of our neighbors and neighborhoods.  For this rendition, the location has been dropped from the title and the spouses in question have been moved to South Harlem.  There, Farai Malianga engages with the audience as a congenial street drummer.   After a quick lesson in African diaspora, he ushers in the local residents who will share their story.  Layabout John Falstaff has grown weary of his VR light saber and nutrition-free snacking and is ready to get out and mingle.  He has his eye on Mmes Ekua Page and Nkechi Ford, two close friends with husbands of means. Even his wooing is lazy and he sends the exact same love letter to them both.  Thankfully they are clever bad ass women who know how to handle themselves.  Ekua has the additional responsibility of finding a suitable match for her beautiful daughter, Anne.  She has her heart set on the prestigious Doctor Caius, while Mr Ford has selected Slender, a sweet but rather simple young man.  But like her mother, Anne has a mind of her own and her lover of choice is not negotiable.  

Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff and Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Ford in Merry Wives

Saheem Ali’s staging takes advantage of the Delacorte’s airy space, filling it with the vibrant energy of his enthusiastic ensemble.  Jacob Ming-Trent is a total joy as a noisy, brash, and notorious-in-his-own-mind Falstaff.  His journey via laundry basket has never been funnier.  There is such warmth and charm in his performance, one feels a bit sorry about his treatment at the hands of far wittier Wives.  Susan Kelechi Watson’s Madam Ford grabs attention with her fabulous moves while Pascale Armand’s Madam Page is a commanding and calculating conspirator.  Both employ West African accents which add flavor though may present a challenge for unaccustomed ears.   Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly and David Ryan Smith as the dapper doc make the most of their two dimensional characters with their impeccable timing.

Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh has condensed Shakespeare’s comedy to a brisk 110 minutes and spiced up the language with modern slang and appropriate cultural references from jollof rice to Dreamgirls.  Upbeat musical cues by composer Michael Thurber as well as Dede Ayite’s brilliant outfits set off with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan punch up the energy.  Stagehands outfitted as sanitation workers work speedily to redress the backgrounds.  The colorfully rendered settings by Broadway vet Beowulf Boritt  include a hair braiding salon, laundromat, family clinic and walkup apartment house, though nothing tops the natural beauty of the park itself, revealed in its natural splendor for the final scene.

The material is not the only part of the equation that is an appropriate match to this moment.  While much of the venue is seated at full capacity, sections are reserved for those who prefer to remain masked and distanced.  A fleet of volunteers help everyone find their place quickly and enforce protocols as needed.  The touchless program is accessed using a QR code on the seatback.  

The entirety of Merry Wives is a celebration of life, tolerance, and togetherness.  It is a love letter to New York and New Yorkers and a wonderful excuse to share a belly laugh in a crowd after a long stretch in isolation.  In particular, it is a fitting tribute to the residents of Seneca Village, the 19th Century Black community that lived on the land that is now occupied by Central Park.  Performances have been extended through September 20.  Visit https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2021/sitp/merry-wives/ for free ticketing information.